Starting from Scratch: Finished!

I started the “starting from scratch” blogs back in the summer when I started this new book, placeholderly titled “Strawberry Fields.” I worked pretty hard and wrote several articles about the writing process, from outlining to characterization to writing, and then I took a big break because some other projects got in the way, but now I’m back. Huzzah! And I’m also done, because I just finished the book. Well, the first draft, at least. There will be much more work to do before it’s good enough to publish–before it’s even good enough to show to my agent or editor–but for now I can smile and say it’s done. And since that means I finally have enough headspace to blog about it, I’ll blog about it.

This was a very difficult book to write, not because it hit a particular nerve in my emotionally but because it was very, very different from anything I;ve written before. Part of that came from the fact that this is the first non-John Cleaver book I’ve written since selling I Am Not a Serial Killer, which means it was a book written without a contract, and that made me nervous. Did anyone want this book? Would anyone even like it. Then there’s the fact that the subject matter itself was kind of weird: a man with schizophrenia realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. I really wanted to convey a sense of fluid reality in my writing, shifting back and forth through various layers of what is and isn’t real, and it turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do. I’d like to think I did it, but we’ll see what my readers think.

On that note, one of the other reasons that this was hard to write is that my writing group has not been in love with it–I think they like it, or at least parts of it, but they LOVED the John Cleaver books and I got kind of spoiled over the last couple of years. There were parts that I already knew weren’t working, and I expected them to get comments, but there were other parts I thought were pretty good, and I learned in writing group that they were not, in fact, working very well at all. When a comment starts with “This is written really, really well,” I’ve come to know that it’s likely to end with “but it doesn’t go anywhere or make any sense.” I don’t complain about this, of course–I love it. That’s why I have a writing group. But it was an adjustment. The “hard to keep writing” part of the story comes from the fact that I was submitting the story chapter by chapter as I wrote it, and it’s hard to stay focused on chapter 20 when the group gives me so many great ideas about how to fix chapter 10.

The primary problem with the first draft of the book, in my opinion (and I tell you this because we’re such good friends) is pacing; cool stuff happens, and I think it all pays off well in the end (though we’ll have to see if the writing group agrees), but these elements are not established very well in the beginning. This I attribute entirely to my big wacky structure experiment which I pretty much abandoned halfway through, and which you’re all going to laugh at. Are you ready?

I structured it as a fugue.

Literally. I took “The Little Fugue” by Bach, broke it down into it’s various components, analyzed how they worked, and then assigned each theme a plot element overlay. I did this more or less because it sounded cool, and I wanted to see what would happen, and I can never resist overcomplicating anything I set out to do. The verdict of this process is that it can probably work, in some situations, and I think it helped indirectly with certain aspects of the story, but overall it was a wacky disaster. I tried to follow the fugue structure too tightly and ended up with a story that developed too slowly, introduced key elements at weird times, and jumped around in a very, well, schizophrenic way. The result was definitely accurate to the mindset, but not in a way that is easy or enjoyable to read.

The good news is, now that I’m done I can look back and say, “oh, this will be relatively easy to fix.” When I tossed the fugue structure halfway through I looked back over the book and realized that while the fugue idea was not working for the plot, it was working (and very well, I think) for certain themes and images. A main character’s motivations should not hop in and out of place like that, but the things he sees–especially as a schizophrenic–definitely should. Objects that appear in one context will appear in another, with their meaning amplified or reversed. I lot of those elements were already built in to by creaky outline, but I put more focus on them as I continued, and I identified several more that I need to beef up in the first half of the book (for example: social therapy). So it’s going to work out, and I’m pleased with it, and I think that after a solid revision I’ll definitely be able to sell it. We’ll see.

10 Responses to “Starting from Scratch: Finished!”

  1. stacy says:

    If you’d like, when you’re ready for alpha readers, let me know. (You know my mom’s schizophrenic, right?) I really like this idea.

  2. Jake says:

    Will this be a stand alone?

  3. Titus says:

    The fugue idea sounds fascinating. Do you think that using a more complex formula (a full symphony by a Romantic or Classical composer, for example) work better, or do you think that it was too complex and needed simplification (12-bar blues or something :P)?

  4. Jacob says:

    A fugue novel, huh? It sounds really cool. I also like how you’re using the schizoprenia. How do you get these great ideas?

  5. Raethe says:

    Hah. A twelve-bar blues structure sounds like a metaphor a discovery writer would use. “This needs some spicing up! I’ll just improv for a while…”

  6. Steve D says:

    Like Stacy, let me know when you need me to give it a once-over.

    On an unrelated note, did you follow my suggestion for the Serial Killer t-shirts? Did it significantly up the base cost? Can I have one before WF so I can wash it? (I hate wearing new shirts without washing them first. It’s a weird thing of mine. I hate the smell and feel of new, but unwashed shirts.)

  7. Jack Heath says:

    Hi Dan,

    I’m a YA writer from Canberra, Australia – I just finished reading I Am Not a Serial Killer. Wow, what a book! You have the skills of a far more seasoned writer. If that was your debut, I can’t imagine how good your work will be a few novels down the track.

    You’re probably sick of reading good reviews of IANASK, but just in case you’re not, there’s one more for your collection at

    Best wishes,

  8. Arlene says:

    So, what you’re saying is that we should stick with the RPG structure for our own little projects. I’m good with that.

  9. Arlene says:

    I listened to my first episode of Writing Excuses. Fascinating!

  10. Mark says:

    Dan, just finished reading your book. I had heard about it from LTUE in February and finally got around to reading it. Wow! I was partially terrified that you would write such things and partially thrilled that you would write such things. Could it be that I was not the only one who had the occasional gruesome thought? Reckon not. I do not know whether I will let any of my kids read it until they are grown, but you did a masterful job of writing and getting me to go along with the character. Thanks and now I will have to look for more of your writings.

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